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In case you hadn’t heard, the Phoenix Suns played the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night in a battle between the NBA’s two-best records. It wasn’t just Phoenix’s franchise-record streak on the line though, since the early title of “league’s best team” also hung in the balance…at least until Friday, when they’ll face off again in the Bay Area.
In an impressive 104-96 win at home, the Suns got their 17th straight victory, matching to the 2006-07 team for the longest win streak in franchise history. They also managed to hold the Dubs’ high-powered offense under 100 points, snapping a 43-game streak of at least 100 points for Golden State.
In what was one of the NBA’s best games of the season thus far, as well as a potential Western Conference Finals preview, we might as well examine some key observations from this entertaining clash of titans.
1. Book’s injury looms large
In the moment, Devin Booker’s absence for the majority of Tuesday night’s game became a moral victory for the Suns. Despite losing him midway through the second quarter due to a left hamstring injury that sidelined him for the rest of the night, Phoenix still pulled out the win without their best scorer and most efficient crunch-time scorer. That made quite a statement.
However, now that this game is in the books, none of it really matters compared to that upcoming diagnosis. Monty Williams had no update on Booker’s status after the game and said the team would know more on Wednesday, but the Suns will have an off day, so we may not know the severity of that hamstring until shootaround Thursday morning.
Booker finished his night with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting before tweaking his hammy, which is unfortunate timing for the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week who was really finding his groove. Book has a history with this type of injury, and with the 18-3 Suns facing the 4-17 Detroit Pistons on Thursday and coming off 17 straight wins, it’s safe to say they have more leeway to be cautious with their superstar than anyone.
In his absence, expect Cam Johnson, Landry Shamet and Cam Payne to pick up the slack, possibly with some Elfrid Payton minutes sprinkled in. Johnson left Tuesday’s game with what appeared to be cramps, so he should be okay moving forward.
2. The Warden builds his DPOY case against an MVP candidate
Heading into this primetime matchup, Curry was tied for the league lead in scoring at 28.6 points per game. Averaging a career-high 13.1 3-point attempts per game, and making a staggering 42.3 percent of them, the two-time MVP was averaging more 3-point makes by himself than 20 entire NBA teams averaged only 20 years ago.
But then Mikal Bridges happened, and one of this year’s MVP frontrunners joined James Harden, Kevin Durant and so many others in “Mikal Jail.”
Going 4-for-21 from the field and 3-for-14 from 3-point range, Curry suffered through his worst performance of the season…and his entire career. To be fair, after going back and watching all 21 of his shot attempts, at least five of Curry’s 3-point looks were open — or at least, “open” by his standards. He simply missed shots:
However, it takes a consistently nagging defensive presence to get in a great shooter’s head like that, and for most of the night, Bridges stuck to his primary defensive assignment like an octopus lathered in glue.
“Look, Steph missed shots,” Williams said. “He came off and he had some open looks and he missed shots that we typically don’t see him miss, but I thought Mikal’s length and his energy, he was there a lot tonight.”
Bridges finished with four steals and one block. Only one of those steals came from Curry’s hand, but that tentacled, big-time play late in the fourth quarter came at a key moment…much like Bridges’ only block of the night, an emphatic rejection at the rim from the weakside right before halftime.
Of course, it’d be unfair to give Bridges all the credit, even if he’s pushing past All-Defensive team debates and moving into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
Williams had stressed it takes a village to contain a singular talent like Steph Curry, and Bridges reiterated that message after the win.
“It’s just a whole team effort,” he said. “What I really did was just be aggressive and be attached, but a lot of screens and a lot of reads, it’s a whole team thing, because if one guy messes up on a switch, there’s a slip or it’s a 3 for him.”
Aside from a few lapses where Curry got makable looks coming off screens, the Suns did a good job communicating and switching to make the Warriors star uncomfortable. Deandre Ayton did a tremendous job in particular of stepping out on the perimeter and getting a hand up, using his length to make those step-back 3s harder.
He even blocked one of them, which, on a Steph Curry 3-pointer, is about as rare over the last few years as an actual unicorn:
It’s unlikely Steph Curry will have another shooting night as bad as this one — whether that’s Friday, the rest of the season or especially in the playoffs. But it’s comforting that Bridges is capable of at least bothering Curry on the defensive end, and it’s even better he has attentive, capable defenders around him to make the uphill task of slowing Chef Curry down a little more manageable.
3. Suns take over in the clutch again
One point that narrowly missed the cut on our preview with key areas for this matchup: Both the Suns and Warriors have been good in crunch-time so far this season, but Phoenix has been in a league of their own. That was on full display Tuesday night, even without Booker around to close.
Before the Warriors game, the Suns were an NBA-best +36 in 28 crunch-time minutes, which NBA.com defines as the score being within five points within the final five minutes of the game. They were also a league-best 8-1 in the nine games they had played featuring crunch-time. The Warriors weren’t terrible, going a +6 in their 26 crunch-time minutes with a 6-2 record, but the gap was sizable enough to be a potential advantage.
That rang true in their first meeting, as the Suns outscored Golden State 12-5 in the final five minutes, turning a one-point lead into an eight-point victory.
The fact that they were able to do it without Devin Booker — who’s put up 30 points in 27 crunch-time minutes on a blistering 11-of-15 shooting from the field and 3-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc — was remarkable.
Chris Paul put on a masterclass, assisting on three Suns 3-pointers and hitting a midrange bucket of his own in that stretch. Jae Crowder buried two of those triples, while Landry Shamet knocked down the third despite a rough shooting night.
“To me, this was just will and toughness,” Williams said. “Not a lot of scheme, not a lot of play calls. Our guys just willed themselves to a victory.”
The Suns are now a league-best +43 in 30 crunch-time minutes, making a league-high 64.6 percent of their shots and an NBA-best 50 percent of their 3s. Phoenix is a damn good team down the stretch in close games, and even without Booker, against one of the best teams in the league, they proved it again.
4. Deandre Ayton sealing the deal
Bridges’ defense on Curry was a huge storyline, but the Suns would’ve been dead in the water on both ends without Deandre Ayton, who finished with a team-high 24 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks on 11-of-19 shooting.
Although he missed a few bunnies, his conditioning held up despite the Warriors forcing him out on the perimeter. He punished mismatches inside when the Suns were able to get him the ball, and despite a few ill-fated turnaround jumpers, his 6 offensive rebounds provided extra possessions.
Most notably, Ayton did a tremendous job sealing smaller defenders and making himself available to Phoenix’s guards in the pick-and-roll and on post-ups.
“I just think our guys are looking for him more, but he’s a bigger target than he was last year,” Williams explained. “Early in the year, when teams would go to a switching defense, DA’s planting himself in the restricted area and catching it and finishing around the basket. We’d all get on him when he has a smaller guy and he shoots the fade and we know he can get to the basket and get to the rim, but he’s so much better this year. There’s an effort to get to the front of the rim and just dominate.”
Even when Ayton wasn’t getting the ball, those hard seals helped. During a stretch in the third quarter, Paul hit back-to-back midrange jumpers created by Ayton screening, rolling with purpose and sucking the defense in with him. That allowed CP3 to operate in his sweet spot against the targeted mismatch.
As Golden State called timeout, Paul pointed to Ayton and patted him on the head, encouraging him to keep it up despite his fatigue.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean [Ayton] has to score the ball,” Williams noted. “A lot of times when he has a small down there and we attack the basket, when we get by their big, now he can be dominant on the offensive boards. So he’s much better in that particular environment.”
“Those midrange shots or whatever that I hit, I don’t make those without him giving himself up and setting those screens,” Paul agreed.
Deandre Ayton remains a controversial topic among the fanbase, but he showed Tuesday night why he’s worth a max contract. If he continues to improve in navigating the short roll, opponents are going to have an incredibly hard time picking their poison against this team.
5. Turnovers are the Warriors’ weakness
On a night where Curry missed 17 of his 21 shots, you’d have thought the Warriors’ “other guys” would’ve been lost trying to pick up the slack. But they did exactly that, like they have all year: Jordan Poole poured in a game-high 28 points on 6-of-12 shooting from deep; Otto Porter Jr. chipped in 16 off the bench; and Gary Payton II added 8 points and 7 boards to finish a team-high +17.
No, the biggest weakness of this Warriors team isn’t depth like it was last year, but rather, turnovers. We touched on it in Tuesday’s preview, but heading into the game, the Warriors ranked 28th in turnovers with a whopping 16.1 per game, which led to an average of 17.5 points off turnovers for opponents.
Against the Suns, Golden State coughed it up a season-high 23 times, leading to 19 points for Phoenix.
On the flip side, the Warriors have been an elite team in turning their opponents’ mistakes into points. They led the league in fast break points (17.1 per game) and were second in both points off turnovers (20.5 per game) and steals (10.1 per game).
The Suns bested them in those categories as well. Phoenix only committed 13 turnovers leading to 9 Warriors points, limited the Dubs to 12 fast break points and actually beat them in steals, 12-7.
Heading into Friday’s matchup and any meeting beyond that, it remains imperative for the Suns to win that turnover battle against a Warriors offense that doesn’t have many other weaknesses.
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